Mikhail Prusak, the governor of Novgorod Oblast who was made chairman of the Democratic Party of Russia (DPR) last month, has again proposed doing away with direct elections for the Russian head of state. During a press conference on Friday (October 26) marking his ten years in office as Novgorod governor, Prusak said he believed that one of the DPR’s main tasks was to fight for the “abolition of direct elections for the president of Russia.”
Prusak clarified his point somewhat yesterday, arguing that “a narrow circle of oligarchs” in essence currently chooses the president, who is then ratified in a popular vote. He compared this process to the method by which the Soviet Communist Party Politburo picked the party’s general secretary. “I think the circle of those putting forward [a presidential candidate] should be widened in a significant way,” Prusak said, suggesting several possible alternatives. One would be the creation of “an assembly of representatives of subjects of the Federation,” which would put forward a “candidate,” he said–using the singular. “And let the people vote in direct elections,” Prusak added, without making clear what choice they would have. Prusak’s other option would be to have the presidential candidate–again in the singular–chosen by national and regional political parties, as well as “different public organizations.” If “an assembly of Federation subjects” were to choose the head of state, he would be fully entitled to “speak in the name of all Russians” and to carry out an independent policy, Prusak said. In any case, “the practice of neo-Tsarism has to be ended,” he declared (NTV.ru, October 29; NTV.ru, Lenta.ru, October 26). In referring to “an assembly of Federation subjects,” Prusak did not indicate whether he had in mind the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, or a new body, nor did he detail how he and the DPR planned to bring about such changes. He did say, however, that the party’s task “in the first stage” was to introduce amendments to the Russian constitution and into “the process of managing the country.” At the same time, he admitted that the DPR’s political influence remained weak (SMI.ru, October 29).
Despite his clarification, what is notable about Prusak’s demarche is, first, his unequivocal judgment that Russia’s current system of direct presidential elections is a essentially a sham–given that the head of state is in reality chosen by a small group of “oligarchs”–and, second, his own belief that the president should not be picked in direct elections. The second point is all the more remarkable given Prusak’s solid reputation as a democrat. At the same time, many observers believe that Prusak’s accession as DPR chairman was part of an attempt by President Vladimir Putin’s team to revive the DPR in order to create an alternative to the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), which has turned out to be less reliably pro-Kremlin than it hoped (see the Monitor, October 2). It should also be noted Prusak’s call for an end to direct presidential elections is not new: Last year, he and two other governors urged that the presidential term be extended to seven years, that the governors be appointed by the president and that the president be appointed by the parliament, prime minister and the “power ministries” rather than be chosen in a direct popular election (see the Monitor, February 29, 2000). Earlier this year, Prusak declared that the heads of regional administrations should be appointed rather than elected given that, in his view, there were no free elections in Russia anyway, thanks to “dominance of financial-industrial capital.” He also again called for extending the presidential term to seven years (Polit.ru, February 16).
At the same time, Prusak has by no means been unequivocal in backing Putin’s efforts to recentralize state power and set up a “presidential vertical of power” in the country. During his October 26 press conference, he reiterated that he opposed Putin’s decision last year to divide the country into seven federal districts and assign each of them an authorized presidential representative. Prusak called the decision “stupid” politically and even more stupid economically. “The president thought this was the way to strengthen the vertical of power, but I see a different vertical: president-governor,” Prusak said, “without middlemen [like] the authorized presidential representatives. I would like it very much if the president found within himself the courage to correct his mistake” (Izvestia.ru, October 26).
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